Robinson in Space (1997)

“Like its predecessor this is an offbeat, verbose, witty mix of documentary, fiction and essay: are we really a poor, terribly provincial nation plagued by industrial decline, or are our hardships and low morale the outcome of choices made by self-serving politicians?”

‘Robinson in Space’, written and directed by Patrick Keiller in 1997, is second in a trilogy of films exploring the geographical and political state of England. Paul Schofield plays the narrator who, with Robinson, tours a series of locations firstly between Oxford and Reading, then expanding west and north to Dorchester, Bristol, Medway, Rotherham and Blackpool. The focus is on industrial sites, cheap hotels, shopping centres and stately homes. At each, the camera lingers statically on the location as the narrator unpacks the significance of each, making connections between the sites and the key political figures of the late 1990s, referencing, amongst others, John Major, Michael Portillo and Tony Blair. As he does this, he decorates his narration with details from history and literature. There is a focus on Defoe (as befits the original ‘Robinson’) but also a focus on fictional charcters such as Dorian Grey and Sherlock Holmes. Through Keiller’s film, Britain becomes a palimpsest of decaying industry, political literature and rich, evocative literary creations each feeding the other. Keiller’s essay like approach and his transformation of mundane, dour images, such as Didcot Power Station, into objects of beauty and significance, is extraordinary. Taken with the other two films, this creates not only a complete picture of the country across three time periods (and periods of political crisis) but also a sense of constantly deferred apocalypse. What surprised me here was the sense of humour: the narrator has a line in pithy comments that undercut the weight of the driving thesis with references to the minutiae of their pilgrimage to the sites.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an extraordinary window into life in the UK just before the collapse of the Tory party and the rise of New Labour. Watched in a triple bill with ‘London’ and ‘Robinson in Ruins’ Keiller’s picture becomes complete.


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